IN RECENT weeks, Republican presidential contenders have repeatedly attacked President Obama for being soft on Iran. Mitt Romney criticized Obama for his failure to put “crippling sanctions’’ in place to take out Iran’s suspicious nuclear program. Not to be out-hawked, Rick Santorum crowed on a Sunday talk show that if he were president, he’d announce airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
These political attacks are likely to get more heated as tensions with Iran rise. On Monday, Iranian television announced that an Iranian-American had been sentenced to death for “spying.’’ Yesterday, Iran blamed the United States and Israel for a mysterious explosion that killed a nuclear scientist in Tehran.
The GOP concern about Iran is understandable. But the candidates’ rhetoric flies in the face of what is really happening on the Iran issue - that Obama just signed into law the harshest set of sanctions ever against Iran. The new law, aimed at cutting off Iran’s oil industry from the world economy, is so tough that Iranian officials have called it an act of war and threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz through which most of the world’s oil flows.
Most Iran-watchers view those threats as bluster. But they are still significant. For the first time, Iranian officials are acknowledging the pain that sanctions are causing. Iran’s currency has plummeted. Its parliamentarians held an unusual closed session to candidly discuss the sanctions. In a promising sign, Iranian officials sent a verbal message to a recent diplomatic meeting that they want to talk.
So why didn’t Obama do it sooner? Because he isn’t acting alone. No American president can put crippling sanctions on an economy as big as Iran’s by himself. The latest round of sanctions is part of a coordinated effort, begun under the Bush administration, with Britain, Germany, and France. They started small in 2006 - with a United Nations ban on the supply of nuclear-related technology to Iran. Over time, they increased the pressure, including more companies and Iranian banks.
So far, the sanctions don’t seem to have changed the Iranian calculus that the nuclear program - which Iran insists is peaceful - should go on. But as the economic noose tightens, that calculus will change as well.
Most importantly, the alliance of nations dedicated to pressuring Iran has remained intact, giving the sanctions a chance of success. On the heels of Obama’s action, the European Union is readying the harshest measures it has ever taken against Iran: an oil embargo. If South Korea and Japan get on board, then Iran’s oil revenues - 60 percent of its economy - could be cut in half.
There is one other reason why Obama waited until now to go after Iran’s oil sector: the pain that it could cause the US economy. If Iran’s oil really does get removed from the world market, oil prices could go up, unless another oil-producing country makes up the shortfall. No one knows what impact the new sanctions will have on the global oil market. But in a world of uncertainty, one thing seems certain: If oil prices rise, Romney and Santorum will hammer Obama for that, too.